Local high school artists visualize historic context of African enslavement

Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Andrew Ringle, Spectrum Editor

In a local teen art exhibition, students from Richmond Public Schools interpret the history of racial conflicts in America. The show at Art 180 is part of “Massive Resilience,” a six-month project that taught 14 budding artists about Richmond’s role in the Atlantic slave trade.

The program included guest artists and lecturers, and it brought students to the Richmond Slave Trail, where they saw the remnants of racial tension in their own hometown. Many of the teens said they weren’t aware of the site beforehand.

“The slave trail is there, but it’s not really there,” student participant Jada Battle said. “I feel like it should be a sacred place that more people know about. I didn’t even know about it before I came to this program.”

Artist Myasia Goode, 15, painted “Crown,” alluding to the Afro as a statement for black people. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Myasia Goode, a program participant who is 15 years old, stood beside her radiant canvas painting at the March 1 opening reception. Her work, titled “Crown,” depicts a black woman with a full Afro, wearing a red-and-white striped shirt.

“The Afro was not just a hairstyle,” Goode said. “It was a statement to rebel against the idea that we don’t need to have straight hair in order to fit in. It’s part of our culture and it’s part of our history.”

Goode said she wanted to bridge the gap in black culture between Africa and the U.S. Black women were unable to maintain their hair, she said, and they later resorted to trying harmful straightening chemicals like lye in order to fit into the “white image.”

“This [project] is so significant because it’s coming from the inside out,” program creator Ram Bhagat said in an event preview. “It’s coming from the inside voice of young people who are expressing the truth of what their ancestors went through.”

Bhagat received a doctoral degree in educational leadership from VCU and he is the newly hired manager for school culture and climate strategy at RPS. His primary role is designing an equitable environment for students by working to heal the effects of racial trauma.

Many of the young artists expressed concerns that their city was not making its role in the slave trade transparent enough to the public.

Natalia Mangaroo, a student at Open High School, said that she would focus on the black community by uplifting areas like Mosby Court and Creighton Court. The former was reported to be the site of more than 20 percent of Richmond’s homicides in 2017.

“The predominantly black Richmond Public Schools are in a horrible state,” Mangaroo said, citing local high schools Thomas Jefferson, Armstrong and John Marshall. “The buildings are absolute trash. They’re neglected and the kids are neglected. They don’t get nearly as good an education as the students in the private schools like St. Benedictine.”

Mangaroo’s artwork used fabric to depict the African continent and symbolize the happier times ethnic groups enjoyed before white colonization.

Open High senior Sabiya Davis said she would invest in the slave trade’s remaining physical sites to make them more visible.

“It’s technically there, but there’s no money going into it so it just grows back into the city over time,” Davis said. “I feel like if we had more emphasis on where it is and where it starts in different places throughout the city, it would help a lot.”

Davis’ painting, “Natfertiti,” mimics the name and image of the ancient Egyptian queen, but uses her friend as a model. Davis said she wanted to show a woman of color in a position of power before the enslavement of black people in the Americas.

“I’ve learned that people can be connected by so many different things, more than what’s on the surface,” 16-year-old participant Tyler Fisher said. “You can go much deeper into a person and find that we might not look alike, but we have a strong bonding factor that we didn’t even know existed.”

“Massive Resilience” will be on display at Art 180 (114 W Marshall St.) until March 22.

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